Finding the Real Life Heroes of Orange is the New Black

If you’re anything like me, “Orange is the New Black” has taken over your life. The show illustrates the difficult and fascinating life within the walls of a federal prison. The show is fiction, but the cruel world OITNB depicts is sadly often representative of what really happens in federal penitentiaries. But there are those who are trying to make it better. One of those people is FBI agent Susan Hanson.

It was two years ago that Hanson first heard of the brutal death of 24-year-old Alabama prison inmate Rocrast Mack. Hanson looked into the claims from the corrections officer’s accounts and thought that they simply didn’t add up.

“Serving a 20-year sentence for a drug conviction at the Ventress Correctional Facility, Mack died in August 2010 of severe bruises from his head down to his legs, his front teeth knocked out and his brain swollen from blows to the head.”

Prison guards said Mack had gotten into an altercation with a female corrections officer, and they responded and acted in self-defense while trying to restrain an out-of-control inmate. They maintained their actions were consistent with protocol and that his death was the result of a fall.

“Facing a lack of cooperation from prison officials, blatant lies from the corrections officers involved in the beatings and silence from inmates fearing retaliation, Hanson overcame the efforts to obstruct her investigation, painstakingly unmasked the truth and built an ironclad case that resulted in the indictments and convictions of four corrections officers for Mack’s death,” reports a press release from the Sammies.

For her outstanding work, Hanson has been nominated for a Service to America Medal (Sammies), the Oscars for federal employees. Hanson sat down with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program for an extended interview to talk about the process.

“Prison is not supposed to be a picnic, but having your liberty taken away is the punishment enough,” Hanson said. “There shouldn’t be any abuse that takes place. Prison should be safe.”

“The events leading to Mack’s death began when a female prison guard caught him engaged in inappropriate conduct. She hit him, he retaliated and the officer radioed for help, beginning what turned out to be a series of brutal beatings in three prison locations over a 40-minute period. After Mack became unconscious and unresponsive, he was transported out of the prison to a hospital, where he died approximately 14 hours later,” reports a press release from the Sammies.

“What we found when we started to investigate was that the altercation between him and the female officer was very minimal. Her injuries were minimal. It was in retaliation, a punishment type of beating the inmate sustained. He was brutally, torturously beaten to death by the guards,” said Hanson.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Chris Higginbotham described the Mack case as the “most egregious” violation by a law enforcement officer that he’s ever seen.

With the help of two experienced attorneys, Patricia Sumner of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Jerusha Adams of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alabama, Hanson conducted hundreds of interviews, obtained the testimony of medical experts, arranged the use of specialized computer graphics detailing the assault locations and compiled volumes of evidence against the defendants.

“The correction officer’s initial story did not match up to what the inmate’s injuries were. We found both inmates and corrections officers who wanted to tell the truth, but were scared to do so. We spent time with them, and a lot of hours doing interviews and getting to the truth. You get a little bit here, and you go back to somebody else that didn’t say that story and eventually putting it together to find out the, the true story that happened.”

As a result of Hanson’s efforts, one prison guard was convicted of violating Mack’s constitutional rights, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced in 2013 to 30 years in prison. Three other prison guards pleaded guilty.

“There is a culture that exists where people working in the prison would cover for one another,” Hanson said. “When we started investigating the Mack case, it was obvious this was not the first abuse that had happened. Other incidents were not reported because inmates were scared. Some of the corrections officers wanted to do the right thing, but they were intimidated too.”

For Hanson rooting out the problems and fighting for those most vulnerable has always been important. “I spent seven years in the Army, so I have always been tough. I think my family was awesome at saying, rule number one, don’t close doors behind yourself. Don’t limit your own expectations of yourself. To other young girls growing up, don’t let them paint you into a corner. Don’t limit what you want to do by society’s expectations of you.”

You can find all our Sammies interviews here.

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